Welcome to another week of Dear Duolingo, an advice column just for learners. Catch up on past installments here.

Hi, everyone! This week I'm teaming up with Dr. Emilie Zuniga (hyperpolyglot extraordinaire) to answer a really interesting question. We needed to combine our expertise across many languages! Let's take a look:

Our question this week:

Dear Duolingo,

Are there words that are unnecessary, in any language? Like the word "the"—sometimes it's translated into Spanish (the language I'm learning), and sometimes it isn't. Are there other words we use all the time that could be left out to make our language more efficient?

Thank you,
Bare Necessities

What a clever observation about words in general and across languages: Some have more translatable meanings than others, and words differ in terms of what kinds of information they include. So what are those differences—and if a word doesn’t convey that much information, do we need it at all?

Different ways of classifying words

One way linguists analyze these differences is by distinguishing content words from function words. Sometimes there are gray areas, but in general, content words have meanings related to concepts, actions, and descriptions of people and things, while function words connect content words in some way and add information about who did what to whom, how it happened, when or where it happened, etc.

Here are some examples from English:

Content words

  • (Most) nouns: hat, independence, problem, chicken
  • (Most) verbs: see, ask, evaluate, shout
  • Adjectives: red, unusual, interesting, angelic

Function words

  • Pronouns: she, their, us
  • (Some) verbs: be, have (when used as a helping verb)
  • Conjunctions: and, or, since, because, although
  • Articles: the, that, an, these

In fact, even prefixes and suffixes can be categorized as content or function morphemes (a fancy name for part-words). And—to make matters more complicated—many words are a combination of content and function morphemes:

Word Content morphemes Function morphemes
teach (verb)
-er (person who does the action)
-s (plural)
thinking think (verb) -ing (verbal aspect)
runs run (verb) -s (3rd person singular)
excitedly excite (verb) -d (past participle)
-ly (adverb)

Curious about these grammatical categories? Let us know!

It turns out learners often find it easier to recognize and use content words rather than function words in their new language! 

Does that mean that function words aren't necessary?

In many cases, you can get the basic meaning of something from content words. Compare these sentences:

  • Regular sentence: Yesterday, the two students walked to school.
  • Content words only: Yesterday two student walk school.

Even though the second sentence isn't considered "grammatical," if you understand English, you would understand what it probably means! So why don't languages simply eliminate all those function words and bits of grammar?

Pidgins: languages with only the most important words

In fact, there are languages that have done just that: pidgins! Pidgins are a category of languages that typically have similar kinds of origins and share some common features. (Confusingly, some languages have "pidgin" in their name, because they *started out* as pidgins, but have now developed a whole array of function words and function morphemes so they no longer count as pidgins!)

Pidgins are communication systems that develop to meet very specific communication needs. One way they arise is through trading relationships, like if traders and merchants who speak different languages need to communicate to conduct business but don't need to learn the other language entirely. Another way many of today's pidgin and creole languages arose was because of slavery: Language contact between colonizers and enslaved people forced the development of new ways to communicate.

In these scenarios, the groups evolve a way to communicate that includes some words from one language and some from another, and they improvise meanings related to their specific communication needs from the relatively small group of shared words. The pidgin language that is created ends up having pretty loose rules (nothing like the way we think of "grammar" in the languages we study)—and the language is basically all content words at the start.

Here are some examples of pidgins (or languages that were formerly pidgins):

  • Bazaar Malay: Speakers of Malay, Chinese, Portuguese, and Dutch developed a pidgin for trading relationships, and it became the lingua franca of the East Indian archipelago.
  • Cameroonian Pidgin English: This language got its start when German colonizers enslaved Cameroonians of many language backgrounds, and all these groups had to communicate in a new way. Today, Cameroonian Pidgin English isn't technically a pidgin at all, since it now has full grammatical rules, complete with lots of function words and morphemes!
  • Juba Arabic: Arabic-speaking traders in what is now Sudan and South Sudan were in contact with interpreters and slaves from Nilotic tribes (a large group that includes speakers of languages like Nubian and Maasai), leading to the pidgin Juba Arabic.
  • Russenorsk: This pidgin drew from Russian and Norwegian and was used by traders in the seas between Norway and Russia.

Many pidgins survived through the centuries, growing and evolving, eventually becoming creole languages (another category of languages). Some creole languages, like Haitian Creole and Jamaican Creole (different from Jamaican English), have "creole" right in the name, while others do not, like Palenquero. All these languages developed function words and part-words spontaneously, to give the languages a full range of nuances, complexities, and exceptions. Even though pidgins lacked function words and well-developed grammatical rules, people (and our brains!) need grammar and function words. (Children do this with language, too!)

How different languages use function words

Let's dive into an example of how differently languages can treat just one kind of function word: definite articles. In English, we have just one definite article, the, and we use it for all kinds of scenarios—no matter how many things we're referring to, no matter the kind of word or object, no matter where in the sentence, the definite article is always the.

Here's how other languages handle definite articles. Depending on the languages you've studied, you may be surprised to know that not all languages have an independent word for the definite article, and there are huge differences across languages in how many different forms of definite articles there are!

What sort of definite article? What information does the definite article include?
word prefix suffix number gender case

There are some big differences here: German checks the most boxes, a language like Basque checks fewer, while Russian, Japanese and Zulu check… none! That's right—some languages have no definite articles at all.

First, let's look at definite articles in German. There’s a lot of information in a small word—and do you notice that sometimes the same form is used for different categories? 😵‍💫

English German What we know from the definite article
I see the dog. Ich sehe den Hund. Hund is masculine
Hund is singular
Hund is the direct object
I see the dogs. Ich sehe die Hunde. Hunde is plural
Hunde is the direct object
I see the cat. Ich sehe die Katze. Katze is feminine
Katze is singular
Katze is the direct object
The dog sees me. Der Hund sieht mich. Hund is masculine
Hund is singular
Hund is the subject

Now look at these examples from Basque, where the definite articles don't include quite as much information as the German articles:

English Basque What we know from the definite article
The man goes to the store. Gizona dendara joaten da. Gizon is singular
Gizon is the subject of an intransitive verb
The man buys bread. Gizonak ogia erosten du. Gizon is singular
Gizon is the subject of a transitive verb
The friends go to the store. Lagunak dendara joaten dira. Lagun is plural
Lagun is the subject of an intransitive verb
The friends buy bread. Lagunek ogia erosten dute. Lagun is plural
Lagun is the subject of a transitive verb

Compare that to what happens in a language like Zulu. The sentence Uthenge i-pizza can mean:

  • She bought pizza. [no definite article in English]
  • She bought the pizza. [definite article in English]
  • She bought a pizza. [indefinite article in English]

In Zulu, there is no definite (or indefinite!) article, so depending on context, the same word i-pizza can be interpreted in different ways. If you're a German learner excited to hear about a language with no articles at all, be warned: Zulu is very complex in other ways! For example, it has 17 noun classes, so the three grammatical genders in German might not sound too bad after all. 😉 Remember—all languages are equally complex, overall!

So, are all these words and differences "necessary"?

While words like function words aren't strictly *necessary*, our brains can't get enough of the nuances they represent—and even if our language doesn't have a specific word for a nuance, it will have other complex strategies for communicating those subtleties. We see from grown-ups and children alike that function-morpheme-less systems don't last long: They evolve into function-morpheme-full languages.

For more answers to your language and word category questions, get in touch with us by emailing dearduolingo@duolingo.com.